I have already indicated that I think the strike is a really bad idea, leaning heavily for my judgment on William Polk's invaluable analysis posted here. But the fact of the debate, and they way it is playing out, is really very interesting. It constitutes, I believe, a tiny step away from the unfettered Imperial Presidency with which we have all been living for the past sixty years and more. If, mirabile dictu, the vote goes against Obama, he will have a really difficult choice to make: whether to abide by the vote, thus acknowledging limits on the power of the presidency, or to order the strike anyway, thereby telling everyone in American public life that his request for authorization was a charade.
I am old enough to have lived through the enormous expansion of presidential power during World War II and the years immediately thereafter. Since I am no sort of American historian, I shall not attempt a capsule description of that fateful expansion, but perhaps I can offer a purely personal reminiscence of the early stages of the transformation of America's president into Emperor or King. The next few paragraphs come from my Memoir, A Life in the Academy, Volume One, Chapter Five:
"I spent that last summer finishing my manuscript and preparing to leave Cambridge. In late August, I wrapped up the book and decided to take a little vacation. Since I had never visited Washington D. C., and now knew several people in the new Kennedy Administration, I took the train down to spend a week there. I checked into a hotel near the train station and went round to various office buildings to visit my friends. They were tremendously excited by their new jobs, but as I spent time with them, I grew more and more uneasy. It was all a bit like the court at Versailles under the ancien régime. There was a great deal of gossip, and a constant anxiety about the thoughts, the feelings, the preferences, the moods of one person, the President.
When I went over to the Capitol to take a look at Congress, my view of the government changed entirely. I spent several days in the visitors' gallery of the Senate, watching debates and votes. The fact that it was the one cool place I had found in a steamy town may have had something to do with my reaction. I watched with great amusement as Everett Dirksen protested his love of duck hunting and hunters, imitating to great effect a duck settling onto a pond at sunset. Apparently the government had imposed a tax on duck hunting in order to raise money for wetlands preservation, and then had used the money to drain swamps for development. The duck hunters of America wanted a five million dollar appropriation to make things right, and Dirksen, who was opposing all spending that week on grounds of fiscal responsibility, was trying to convince the duck hunters of Illinois that he felt their pain. I watched the great maverick, Wayne Morse, bellow to an empty chamber that he was not going to kowtow to the Catholic Church, with regard to what I can no longer recall. And I watched as all but two of the senators came to the floor to vote on the renewal of the Civil Rights Commission.
What attracted me so greatly was the fact that each of these men and women was an independent person, beholden only to his or her constituents, and not subservient to the President, regardless of how charismatic and powerful he might be. These were men and women with honor, not servile courtiers hoping to be given pride of place on a balcony or in a presidential jet. Exactly the same sentiments welled up in me as I watch octogenarian Robert Byrd deliver speech after speech calling George W. Bush to account for the damage he did to the U. S. Constitution.
It was fun visiting Marc Raskin in the Executive Office Building, and listening to the rumors about Kennedy and Marc's secretary, Diane DeVegh. It was interesting hearing Dick Barnet talk about the inside story at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. But it was ennobling to watch the debates on the floor of the Senate. I think it was that week in a hot Washington summer, rather than any of the books I had read, that once for all time soured me on the Imperial Presidency."
In the fifty-two years since that summer, things have only gotten worse and worse. It is now impossible in public discourse even to call into question the Imperial Presidency without being considered a fringe nut from the right or the left. I suspect that in some corner of his mind Obama understands some of this, although he has neither the political courage nor the will to act on that glimmer of understanding. But if this vote does something, anything, to place limits on presidential power, it will be worth the tedium of listening to John Kerry.